Trade Unionism under a dictatorship, imploding economy and Covid-19 pandemic

Trade Unions traditionally work towards achieving the achievable, bargaining for better deals through formal channels. Trade Unions rarely act as revolutionary outfits. A healthy parliamentary democracy makes it easy for trade unions to lobby for legislative reforms aimed at improving work place democracy. The executive is also constantly lobbied for policy reforms which favour labour. The judiciary is another battle ground where workers seek relief when in distress. All these channels have been completely closed in Zimbabwe, we are in an undeclared state of emergency. The institutions which protect bourgeoisie democracy have been captured, it is now impossible to freely push for the traditional achievable deals. The closure of democratic space is coming at a time when the economy has completely collapsed and COVID 19 pandemic is wrecking havoc, and the virus is being used as justification for escalating repression.

Zimbabwe’s Trade Union movement is confronted with the former South African form of apartheid, basic constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms have been suspended by the State. The situation is worse than colonial Zimbabwe. Under colonial Zimbabwe a teacher called Robert Mugabe wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Garfield Todd threatening to box him if his salary was slashed. That was an overt threat of violence, he was never arrested and was never charged for that. Today the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU is labelled a terrorist organisation for simply demanding salaries in a stable currency. Armed security agents are deployed to homes of Trade Unionists during the night with the intention to abduct them and torture them. These are not allegations but facts, I was abducted and tortured twice, I have primary evidence. Our sin is demanding a living wage.

The National Joint Negotiating Council, a flawed platform for negotiations between government and civil servants has been suspended. Trade Unions have been rendered useless and government unilaterally awards salary reviews. The President of the Republic acts like a slave master who can unilaterally review conditions of service of his slaves on compassionate grounds. Labour is expected to be grateful to the generosity of the Head of State. Yellow Unions don’t disappoint, they always celebrate every token thrown their way including an additional teaspoon full of sugar.

The once hyped Tripartite Negotiating Forum, TNF is now moribund. Attempts to push for a minimum wage through that platform have failed.

After completely closing democratic space, government went on to slash civil servants salaries. Our civil servants were among the best paid in Southern Africa in 2017 but we are now the least paid. The lowest paid teacher used to earn a monthly salary of USD 520 but it has since been reduced to a paltry USD 30 under Mthuli Ncube’s austerity measures.

What pains us the most is that the money saved from the salary slashes was never directed towards stimulating production. The funds were either lost through executive luxuries and corruption or invested in flirting with International Financiers in the vain hope of attracting lines of credit. We are told we have to sweat out more towards compensating white farmers.

As the Zimbabwe State was perfecting its apparatus of repression and getting entangled in an International Monetary Fund, IMF monitored neo liberal agenda, our economy collapsed and our social services disintergrated. Annual inflation has shot above 800%, families cant afford a meal. Hospitals are now slaughter houses for our people.

The COVID 19 pandemic found us vulnerable, our state had perfected repression but neglected social services. When we expected test kits to be deployed in our neighbourhoods, gun totting trigger happy apartheid regime soldiers were deployed. Where we expected social protection grants, government destroyed vending stalls. Companies who were expecting rescue package were given regulations, they are retrenching the few of our people who were employed. Provision of Personal Protective Equipment for workers was supposed to be a priority, but USD 60 million meant for PPE was lost through corruption by people connected to the apartheid government. Nurses have clocked day 60 of sustained job action demanding PPE.

Our schools have no capacity to safely open and any form of remote learning is impossible because unavailabiliy of infrasttucture abd underpayment of teachers.

The list of challenges confronting Trade Unions cannot be exhausted in this brief instalment, it is more important to focus on what can be done? There is no simple answer to that, a lot of sub questions have to be attended to first.

The first question is, can Trade Unions in Zimbabwe afford to maintain the reformist stance in the face of an apartheid state? It is common knowledge that the business as usual approach will not work in our context. The achievable goals of Trade Unions have been completely withdrawn. All labour rights guaranteed in section 65 of Zimbabwe’s constitution have been illegally suspended. Unionism has been criminalised, the Unions are labelled terrorist organisations.

I posit that we research on the role of the South African Trade Union movement in the face of apartheid. We should never expect justice from an apartheid government, we should dismantle apartheid and restore democracy in our country. We can only stick to the normal business of labour when normalcy has been restored in our country. We have to crush apartheid system so that we freely organise, have space for collective bargaining and get protection from the law. Mnangagwa’s government is unrestrained by the law, the establishment is self serving and anti worker. Such an establishment must be crushed. Trade Unions have to come out in the open and declare war against apartheid. The same individuals leading us today may remain in government but presiding over a different system of governance, a system which respects the rule of law.

If we have to crush this apartheid system we need to identify our allies. Who are our allies? What is our attitude towards opposition political parties who also seek to crush apartheid? Workers should openly enter into alliances with the churches, civic society, students and opposition political parties. We have to save Zimbabwe as a united front. We should however be wary of the possible hijacking of the people’s struggle by neo liberals and proxies of imperialism. It is therefore imperative that the more advanced members of the proletariat take a lead in providing leadership at every stage of the struggle. We should also enlist the peasants in our fight, the Zimbabwean peasant is bearing the brunt of exploitation as they are robbed of the yields of their fields through corrupt pricing regimes. Tobacco farmers are the worst affected. We should deploy Cdes in every village to organise the peasants to join the fight against apartheid.

What is our attitude towards sanctions and the inter imperialist wars between China and the United States of America, USA? In a normal democracy we dont condone interference from outside forces. We are a Sovereign Republic with right to self determination. We recommit ourselves to the collective national aspiration of freedom, equality and justice for all. This national aspiration pushed our fore runners to wage a liberation war against the settler regime which had colonised us. We submit to being dominated and governed but only through our own consent. We dont consent to the apartheid system of governance in our Republic. Those countries who support the apartheid state, are supporting the abduction, torturing, imprisonment and killing of our people. The apartheid government should not have access to more armaments because they will use them to kill our people. The apartheid system should not have access to credit lines because they will invest in executive luxuries and more means for state repression.

The Zimbabwean situation should not be compared to genuine socialist states like Cuba who are under siege from imperialists. Our case is of a rogue state which must be urgently dismantled. We know sanctions affect ordinary people because when thieves in government are placed under sanctions they turn to the poor and rob the little that remains in the poor man’s plate. The suffering of the poor should not be prolonged, so the blow of the proletariat should be urgently delivered with better tact than before. We should encourage other nation states to tighten the choke hold on the apartheid regime. The regime must be isolated and be at the mercy of the proletariat and the peasants who are the worst victims of the exploitation and oppression of the apartheid regime.

We must hasten to admit that the Trade Union Movement and the broad working class have suffered huge losses in previous battles. The 14-16 January 2019 and 31 July 2020 protests both attracted unbridled state repression. We have suffered losses because we have failed to properly locate our struggle within both domestic and international context. We have treated the apartheid regime as a normal government with potential to reform. We have failed to build strategic allies to help isolate and crush the apartheid state.

It is refreshing to note the global solidarity the Zimbabwean cause has received under the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign. Such global solidarity should not be squandered, it should propel us to act on our situation with more urgency.

Borrowing from Russian revolutionary Vladmir Lenin we can tweak his national question and ask ourselves the following national question, Are the revolutionary potentialities latent in the revolutionary masses of our great country already exhausted, or not; and if not, is there any hope, any basis, for utilising these potentialities for the proletarian revolution, for safeguarding the current struggle from being imperialist driven to a genuine proletariat revolution whose outcome benefits the masses?

My opinion is in the affirmative. The working class can safeguard the moral campus of the ongoing struggle and inject fresh impetus into it, bringing urgent and genuine victory for the masses.

Source: Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ)